Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home
Season 4 | Episode 4

(So-Called) Life

« previous episode | next episode »

In a world where biology and engineering intersect, how do you decide what's "natural"?

Biotechnology is making it easier and easier to create new forms of life, but what are the consequences when humans play with life? We travel back to the first billion years of life on Earth, take a look at how modern engineers tinker with living things, and meet a woman who could have been two people.

 

Guests:

Brian Baynes, George Church, Nigel Goldenfeld, Karen Keegan, Laurel Kendall, Steven Payne, Reshma Shetty, Lee Silver, Steve Strogatz and Lynne Uhl

Mix and Match

To get us thinking about creating new life forms, we tag along with a group of kids on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History exhibit on Mythic Creatures. Curator Laurel Kendall tells us that even figments of the human imagination deserve to be a part of natural ...

Comments [26]

Genes on the Move

Biology class is all about putting living things into categories, based on their differences. And creatures are different because they have different genes. But life wasn’t always like that. In this segment, Steve Strogatz, an applied mathematician at Cornell, tells us about a radical theory that says that way back ...

Comments [18]

Intelligent Design?

Are living things really just machines made of little genetic parts? Are genes just like little software programs that we can plug into living things? That’s how synthetic biologists think about life. Brian Baynes gives us a tour of his company, Codon Devices, where they make and sell genes. Then ...

Comments [19]

Comments [73]

I totally 100% agree with what Robert says at the end of this episode. This engineering new life thing really frightens me.

Jun. 16 2014 10:49 AM
Dave K from NYC

At the intro, I'm all spacing out to the music. Jad comes in, "That's our show for today..." and I thought for a moment that I had spaced through the entire thing!

Feb. 07 2014 01:59 AM
JustaThought

Does anyone ever feel like Robert is secretly a bigot or is anyone offended by his comments? In the last few minutes of this podcast, when talking about the guy who made a new polio "there is a guy, perhaps in a CAVE SOMEWHERE IN AFGHANISTAN." Like really? Pretty specific example Robert.

Jan. 29 2014 09:16 PM

A wonderful episode as usual! I know this is an old episode but I'd just like to make a small criticism: I understand that you guys were going for a stylized song with the bio engineer song but I'd like to remind you that there are female engineers. I am one, in fact you interviewed one in this show! The song was very male-centric. Just a friendly reminder to think outside of stereotypes! :)

May. 30 2013 01:12 PM
PMLaw from Kingston, Ny

What we do not need on this planet is an endless and cheap source of hydrocarbon fuels!

And I was terrified by what Dr. Dyson proposed- it is called the web of life because changes to one part affect many other parts- it is not just affecting one organism, it affects the whole of the environment around it- and perhaps beyond. I work at a native plant nursery and see firsthand the consequences of introducing alien species into an environment. And those alien species were most often intentionally introduced by people who put their own selfish desires first. Yes, sometimes they dressed them up with blather about economic or aesthetic benefits, but at heart, they just wanted to make the world how they thought it should be. These ego-driven landscapes now are depauperate ecological deserts- most folks wouldn't know a natural landscape if they were plopped down in one.

Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it- cue the Tyrannosaurus rex rampaging through the visitor center...

Oct. 10 2012 11:46 AM
John T from Dallas

The concerns that are raised here about the dangers of this part of science are well expressed and of the utmost importance.

The Radiolab folks did a good job of giving us a receiveable amount of material that served several useful functions.

It was a reminder of what is going on with some easy to understand examples done in a not heavy handed way helping get us engaged.

It gave us a sense of what may be driving some of these efforts in that it is not all for profit so to speak as opposed to human "eccentricities" such as curiosity, challenge, "success enjoyment" and fun.

And at the end, they finished with a last impression that was the serious part expressing these very concerns. They are able to get across in a listenable way the potential benefit and the potential drawbacks.

When a layman like myself sees info such as in the Nova series on Making Stuff which crosses somewhat with this material, there looks to be a lot of real wonder to be had if we can figure out how to pick and chose well.

Rather than blame these fine folks where none is due, address the bigger question of how we get to a place where we have eliminated as many motives as possible to chose badly.

A lot of social system work was done a couple of hundred years ago that given our state of psychological development thus far, hasn't served too badly. It's time for round 2. We need to refresh their work in our own time.

And, oddly given our topic of science, that very discipline and it's useful by-products make it more possible than at any previous time in history to do so in a way that no one has less tomorrow than today in real terms (except possibly in the realm of power) as we make it our work to see that all have enough with less eventual labor from all of us.

Yea Radiolab.

Oct. 09 2012 06:19 AM
You actually used this?!!

My earlier comment was a little harsh, but after learning what one invasive species can do to an ecosystem like the Great Lakes, the notion of possibly making an invasive species is a little hair-raising.
SB Milwaukee

Oct. 08 2012 10:22 PM
Bill from Coffeetown from Seattle

In my view, your bioengineering show failed to adequately address the larger moral/environmental issues raised by genetic engineering. The theme that came across in the show was how fun and interesting it can be to tweak genes to make life more to the tweaker's liking. (How cute those little spearmint and banana smelling E. coli must be!) I don't think that the little cautionary warning at the end of the show about how little we know and how we should proceed with caution fairly captures the level of concern we should have in this area. Indeed, your treatment of the sweet smelling E. coli story missed a chance to make the point.

The students described the E. coli as "smelling bad" like "poop." But that misses the mark entirely. E.coli have no inherent smell. The quality of the smell of E. coli exists in the one smelling, not what is being smelled. Humans have evolved a very useful aversion to the smell of E. coli. Tinkering with the smell characteristics of E. coli, if introduced into the environment, would dangerously undermine that defense.

Why didn't you point this out? This is a simple first order unintended consequence that could lead to serious adverse consequences. More worrisome are the undetected secondary, tertiary, etc., consequences that can appear after the genie is out of the bottle. Human history gives no reason to be confident that society can successfully manage such risks.

There is a huge, and perhaps insoluble, problem with human efforts to play God because it is the incentives of the decision maker, not some objective manifestation of general overall welfare, that drive the decisions. It is not even humankind that play God in the lab. It is the individual men and women who tweak the chemistry. That is a scary thought.

Of course humans have tinkered with genes for millennia, but only by selective breeding -- ponderously slow compared to what can be achieved in the lab. We must be very careful in deciding whether and under what conditions it is safe or wise to move faster.

Oct. 08 2012 12:44 PM
Fritzie Borgwardt from Minneapolis

I liked the show because it made me think. It put me in the mind of the children's book, "Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo!"

E-coli that smells like spearmint or banana? What happens when it ends up in the garbage? What happens if children come across it somewhere? These scientists engineered it ...made a whole new organism, never before seen on earth, for their own convenience and comfort? Because they did not like the smell? Wouldn't nose plugs have been easier? I personally don't want dangerous things to smell nicely. It seems to me this aroma evolved to protect us from something awful. So are we reverse engineering evolution, then?

They do this because they can. Why? Because it is likely to make money. So then, all these experiments will likely skew toward results that produce profit rather that toward results in the public's priceless best interest.

I think science should be like journalism used to be. Not biased toward profit, with perhaps a parallel economy to pay for its value to the whole human race, not just to the 1%. No one is smarter than God.

Oct. 08 2012 02:42 AM
Brian Zack from Princeton NJ

As a fan of your show, I cringed through today's "Life." With respect, it was terrible, It sounded as if written and performed by manic seventh graders from the eighteenth century. Repeated references to Dr. Frankenstein? Calling scientists arrogant for daring to work on life? Really?? Do you truly not know that vitalism is no longer an accepted biological theory? And the level of discussion was intellectually insulting. Please, try to get back to your usual standards. Thanks!

Oct. 07 2012 02:08 PM
Marie Z. from New Jersey

I want to know how to get a supply of the E.Coli that smells like wintergreen. If I can introduce it into my pets' intestinal fauna, then the catbox could double as an airfreshener! I'm in!

Oct. 07 2012 02:04 PM
Ellen Meister from New York

"Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures ... "

Housewives and children? Dear Freeman Dyson: 1965 called. It wants its sexism back.

Oct. 07 2012 09:54 AM
Jonathan

I was surprise that the entire (riveting) show did not take into account moral corruption. Mankind's default setting is selfish ambition, and often that leads to violence against others. The military is often where technological advancements are made. How long until wars are being fought with "living machines"?

Oct. 07 2012 07:47 AM
Robert Smith

What Anthony Stratton said is false: "In order to create a hybrid, the two species must have the same number of chromosomes." A horse has 64 chromosomes, a donkey has 62 chromosomes, their hybrid, a mule, has 63 chromosomes.

Oct. 06 2012 09:56 PM
Robert Smith

What Anthony Stratton said is false: "In order to create a hybrid, the two species must have the same number of chromosomes." A horse has 64 chromosomes, a donkey has 62 chromosomes, and the hybrid of the two, a mule, has 63 chromosomes. These are called interspecific hybrids.

Oct. 06 2012 09:40 PM
Anthony Stratton from Minneapolis

I just listened to This So Called Life. There was a theoretical discussion about breeding a human chimpanzee hybrid in some university class. Then a young woman in the class volunteered to give it a go and there was a big uproar about the ethics of a human chimpanzee hybrid and then there was a university play about it.

As of right now, with the current level of genetic engineering, it's impossible to create a human chimpanzee hybrid. Humans have 46 chromosomes, chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes. The other apes also have 48 chromosomes: gorillas, orangutans and binobos. In order to create a hybrid, the two species must have the same number of chromosomes. It was sad to listen to those people wasting their efforts on something that's impossible. But then, no one in the class or the play thought to do the slightest bit of research on the subject, and probably weren't capable of any serious research to begin with.

Oct. 06 2012 06:08 PM
Jodie Walters from Minneapolis

Very interesting program. Reminded me of the Beggars triology (also known as the Sleepless trilogy) by Nancy Kress. The books explore the same issues, taken to their logical conclusions, unintended consequences & all. Very thought-provoking &, I believe, prescient.

Oct. 06 2012 05:09 PM
Barry

Has anyone responsible for this show or interested in this topic read Margaret Atwood's novel "Oryx and Crake"? it covers this topic quite exactly, in a very human yet dystopian way.

Oct. 06 2012 12:56 PM

I'm just looking forward to the day when I can have my own petite lap giraffe.

Oct. 06 2012 05:22 AM
archer

scariest radiolab in the history of scary radiolabs

Oct. 06 2012 01:39 AM
Steve Baldwin from Milwaukee

Maybe it’s just me or maybe I’m missing an important point… but I was astounded at the naivety of these extremely smart bioengineers.

They may be building something good, but they may also be building something extremely bad. The fact that they seemed so complacent about the difference between these possibilities makes me believe that either they have no value for human life or no appreciation of the balance of nature with which they are "tinkering".

Oct. 05 2012 09:34 PM

i appreciate that robert usually represents the moral/skeptic of science side of the argument during the shows but it really is a strain to listen to for the hour of this otherwise really captivating episode. i think it would have been better served in the closing segment with the other critics of bioengineering.

Aug. 14 2012 05:29 PM
ShaunQ

Robert caught his own backward-thinking in a nutshell, "That'd be ridiculous, to ask scientist not to do science."

Jun. 01 2012 09:38 AM
Dianne

Vegetarians to not have stinky poop.. it's left to us meateaters.... AND yes, as a colontherapist (yes, I give high enemas for a living), when people are sick their poop stinks smells worse... with cancer, it ma1kes your eyes burn.... perfume anyone?

Nov. 13 2011 11:49 PM

To me, the most interesting part of the whole show was the idea of the young people called kids at MIT that changed the smell of E.Coli because they found it unpleasant. They changed the smell of it from poop to wintergreen, I think, so that when they were around it, it would not smell like a**! Makes sense to me, but the very reason why poop smells bad to us is a warning system, right? It's in our hardwiring to find this offensive because it could kill us, so it serves a purpose, biologically...when we start making things for our pleasure, it gets dangerous i think...I know this is a small example, but what if the change was made to something more sinister...

Oct. 29 2011 04:32 PM
Finn Robertson from Melbourne

Also, this cat...

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-09-30/cat-with-two-faces-enters-record-book/3193290

Oct. 07 2011 12:33 AM
Finn Robertson from Melbourne

It would have been cool to include the story of Edward Mordrake in this episode

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Mordrake

Oct. 07 2011 12:30 AM

i totally support Robert
this is too complicated, we might change our surface of the earth.
i think we might get out of control and like a rollin snowball, it might never stop.

Jun. 14 2011 05:59 AM
Phyllis from Florida

Like many have already pointed out, Robert was incorrect in saying that chimps evolved into Homo sapiens. We merely share a common ancestor.

This is an oversimplification, but: said common ancestor branches off in two different directions - one eventually evolves into chimpanzees, the other eventually evolves into humans. We are not modified chimps. Both humans and chimps are modifications of that common ancestor.

Apr. 28 2011 12:31 PM

I know that this show aired a long time ago, but since I have nothing better to do in my spare time, I listen to all the Radio Lab show (again). Anyway, I wanted to comment on part of this show, not that I really expect anyone to respond or clarify my statement, but it never hurts to ask.

During the 'primordial soup' section the... organisms mentioned- is that the right term?- are swapping DNA willy-nilly with each other, gaining advantages and disadvantages. Robert gives the example of gaining the cold temperature resistance. So this DNA swapping goes on for a long time until the "Bill Gates" organism comes along. My point that I would really like some clarification on is that moment in evolution. We all know that this is the way organisms function now and ever since then, but I'm curious about why. Considering the moment the "Bill Gates" organism shows up, how do more organisms get the same trait if the "Bill Gates" organism refuses to share? I would assume that this trait is a genetic mutation, the non-sharing trait, so then how does this same trait appear in other organisms in an age of free DNA exchange? Is it something like this "Bill Gates" organism is the first organism to ALSO have the ability to replicate itself? Or is it more along the lines of over a billion years, perhaps a trillion variations of organisms with the "Bill Gates" trait randomly 'appeared' and finally one ALSO had to ability to copy/reproduce itself?

My second point that I'd like to make is why did the 'selfish' method win out over the free DNA swapping method? If traits and are both good and bad can be shared willy-nilly, then traits that help something survive get passed along to others, increasing the chance that those organisms live, where was negative traits that harm an organism's chances to survive will end up killing off so many organisms, there-by reducing the chance that the negative trait(s) are passed on. In this model, it would seem that over the course of time, those positive traits would endure and when considering the "Bill Gates" organism, other positive traits would not be able to get passed on to an organism that couldn't share DNA. It's hard for me to figure out how the selfish method won out.

I really hope that you (Radio Lab) do a short to follow up on this and other issues raised by some of these people commenting here. It won't ruin my life if you don't do a follow up, but if you did, I know it'd make me very happy. Thanks for all the work you do, you are my favorite radio show!

Mar. 15 2011 07:24 PM
K from NYC

The ecoli organism that was created to excrete diesel could singularly destroy our planet. What if the organism got into an ocean? It could proliferate out of control and secrete diesel into our oceans, killing animal life. This could create an imbalance that could destroy all life. Playing God, and creating new organisms as bio-engineers do could easily be the end of our world.

Mar. 03 2011 08:43 PM
Innis from Colorado

Very interesting show!
one comment: I think I know why the Bill Gates gene persists! It's successful, just like the real Bill Gates.

One question: Did the Chimera woman ever get her transplant? The show just kinda left that whole story unended. and how would I ever get an answer to a question!?

Mar. 02 2011 03:49 PM
Meaghan from Maine

I was shocked that the only criticism of biotech was Robert, Nigel and Steve’s undefined misgivings. Why wait until the end of the episode to raise these profound concerns? And why not give them life with some examples and stories like you did with pro-engineering scientists for the other forty minutes of the show?

There are countless stories available to illustrate the ways in which unintended consequences of this ideological science are already causing great, well-documented reasons for concern in the scientific community.

Take, for one example, the contamination of seeds documented in one instance by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2004.

http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/gone-to-seed.html

Would you have them stop? What do you do in the face of that risk? Steve is confused, Robert doesn’t know. I believe one answer to this very daunting problem is to have cultural institutions in the dominant society that insist on challenging the values of science. Maybe, to work towards more diversity of cultural values, Radiolab could invite Winona LaDuke or Gil Scott-Heron to be part of the creative team. See LaDuke’s essay on Apache resistance to a University of Arizona telescope on Mt. Graham and the war of values surrounding that struggle. Gil speaks for himself.

http://books.google.com/books?id=8je1uCLLRvgC&pg=PA19&lpg=PA19&dq=winona+laduke+mt+graham+international+observatory&source=bl&ots=8G63U_tU8I&sig=9gdWlErHOqjhbRxf47yigvYhsbo&hl=en&ei=sqbmTJO9PIP_8AaH2-ixCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5smPcN8AoE

Feb. 01 2011 12:47 PM
Lowell

My wife made the same point that Robert finally did when I was preaching that we needed to start re-designing ourselves immediately. I still believe (unlike Robert) that life is machinery, and there is nothing sacred about 'nature' as separate from technology. HOWEVER-- I agree that we should respect the fact that nature has had billions of years to make things that work-- that amount of time is something that the wisest human can't yet imagine. Maybe we should proceed a little slowly and carefully when it comes to changing ourselves.

However, I would very much like to have bat-fish-scorpian for a pet, in the mean time.

Dec. 30 2010 11:05 AM
luca from new york

at 17:01 Robert Krulwich says

"If you believe in evolution"

wow..

that`s pretty bad for a scientific show.

Nov. 15 2010 09:41 PM
Jeremy from Minnesota

I'm a huge fan of Radiolab. I'm wondering if anyone can please tell me what is the music playing at 53:11 and 57:14... it's piano music and the 2nd one has some ocean sounds in the background. Please let me know!

I sent an inquiry to RL and they told me that they don't keep records of what music they use. I hope someone knows! THANKS!

Sep. 22 2010 02:10 AM
Alya

My friend Scott turned me on to Radio lab on Christmas Eve and I've listened to every single episode working my way back in time almost non-stop until this one (two years of episodes).

This one inspired me to write a new novel. So thank you.

Thank you Robert and Jad and the producers and the staff and the fund-ers and the science ;) for finding and giving me my inspiration back.

Jan. 04 2010 10:46 AM
abby

my friends who introduced me to radio lab described is as "a brain message!" its seems to be so.. i love the sounds of brad and marc and the information is great!!!

May. 06 2008 03:16 PM
Soren Wheeler

Bad and Marc (again, sorry had to repeat my reponse here too),

You are quite right about the evolution comment. Unfortunate that I let this slip by. Lee Silver did try to correct Robert by noting that humans developed slowly over millions of years from a chimp-like ancestor, and at each step along the way the offspring were similar to their parents ... but we cut him a bit short and Robert's comment was still off the mark.

Thanks for catching this and keeping us on our toes.

Cheers,
Soren.

Apr. 18 2008 09:49 AM
Marc Naimark

Yay Ben! I and another listener have posted the same comment on the show comment page. This is not just borderline, it's wrong, and wrong in a harmful way, as it is the same sort argument made by creationists to denounce Darwinism. We do not descend from chimps: we share a recent common ancestor with chimps, hence our genetic similarity.

Another thang... there's a confusion between chimeras and hybrids. If I understand the show, chimeras have certain organs that originated in different embryonic cells. Hybrids have a single type embryonic cell, whose genes come from each parent. That's like any other sexual creature. But it also explains why hybrids would tend to be sterile: to be fertile, the various genes would have to be sufficiently compatible to allow for fertilization and gestation. For chimeras, the problem is totally different: the reproductive system comes from a single viable set of genes.

About Karen: did she get her kidney transplant?

Apr. 18 2008 07:19 AM
sensible scientist

At roughly 17:00 you mention "if you believe in evolution"... I would HOPE that the biologists and scientists participating would believe in a core biological process such as evolution. THAT should be a given. Touch up the language... you're making me cringe.

Apr. 14 2008 06:18 PM
Lulu Miller

Thanks for the continued discussion about the Life show! to #26 (Bryce)-- The Bio-engineer Anthem was made by they very talented Mammalian Pituitary Band which is:
Shane Winter - Composer / Arranger
Josh Kurz - Lyrics/Vocals
Jason Major - Vocals
Wendy Roderweiss - Vocals
Natasha Bayus - 100% Real french horn

Here's their website: www.highermammals.com

Apr. 13 2008 05:52 PM
Dave

I think the intro sound collage is kind of sloppy, especially considering the high quality of sound editing in the rest of the show. Digital "artifacts" always sound bad to me--not rough it a good way.

Apr. 13 2008 01:02 AM
Ales

Another great episode! I loved it. It gave me so much to think about.

Best wishes from the ever expanding Slovenia fanbase,

Ales

Apr. 12 2008 03:14 PM
Spyder

I thoroughly enjoyed "(So-called) Life."

If Jad and Robert were to make an expanded version of the broadcast...

Jad and Robert might have discussed all of the chimera that occur when two species are penned together in captivity. The fact that the following species would not usually, freely reproduce in the wild helps to confirm our definition of species, but each is biologically possible. Because they are biologically possible, they help to demonstrate that the whole concept of "species" is a human construct and does not represent the fluid and dynamic way that is nature. Examples of chimera:
Mules and hinnies (depending on which parent is the donkey and which is the horse). These offspring are of course, sterile because of a chromosome number mismatch but the following may not be sterile.
Wolphins (Bottlenose dolphins and pseudorcas)
Ligers or tigons (again,depending on which parent belongs to which species, tiger or lion)
Zorse (horse and zebra)
Dog-wolf hybrids
There are more, but point made.

Jad and Robert might also have mentioned that technically, when a pig heart valve(porcine valve) is implanted into a human heart, the human becomes a chimera. The porcine valve has been treated however in a way that eliminates its "pigginess," thereby limiting host-graft rejection

There was a mention of Carl Woese in the broadcas. He is a major hero for me and I wish that it might have been mentioned that his discovery in about 1977, turned the biological science world upside down. Before his discovery all life could be divided into either prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The prokaryotes consisted of bacteria. Eukaryotes were everything else (including us). His discovery added a whole new category of life: archaebacteria. This third category of life includes a variety of extremophile organisms which are able to thrive in environments which previously were thought to be too hostile to support life. Extremes of temperatures, toxic chemicals, salinity etc... His discovery opens the door to discovering life forms in or on the moons of Jupiter for example. I didn't know that Carl Woesse was still actively working.

Jad and Robert might also have mentioned the current use of organisms for bioremediation. These organisms can remove heavy metals and other elementals from contaminated soil or they can detoxify other pollutants. I'm thinking that bio-engineering will likely solve both our energy problems and our problems with increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. On the topic of bioremediation, I thank Anonymous above for her comments on plastics. There is a floating mass of plastic the size of Texas out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (gyre). This horror is not only working its damage when a variety of sea life consume it, the plastic is also concentrating a whole variety of toxic chemicals that become a part of the food web that we depend on.

Jad and Robert might have discussed that many cells (including our own) are actually chimera themselves. Many scientist believe that organelles known as chlorplasts and mitochondria are actually organisms that were captured and utilized by other cells. Perhaps you may have heard of "mitochondrial DNA" which reflects the foreign source of this organelle, an organelle aka "the powerhouse of the cell."

Jad and Robert might also have mentioned that bacteria of different species continue to share genetic material (although I am not sure if it is because their membranes are leaky). This sharing from one species to another contributes to the bacterial resistance to antibiotics which we are seeing. Research "plasmids" if you are interested.

I am intrigued by the Portuguese Man-of-war. I have read the same thing and I thank Tim Atkinson for reminding me of it. Have I not also read that the modern banana is a chimera which cannot be propagated by seed but only by its root structures (corms)?

I know that some are concerned that we are "playing god" when we bioengineer. From my perspective, current techniques are not substantially much different from the way in which previous generations of humans encouraged the diminutive ancestoral species of corn (and many other species we eat) into the food source it is today.

Thanks for reading. I hope you found this submission helpful and I look forward to any response. (My background: I'm a retired physician assistant, currently teaching science at the middle school level).

Spyder

Apr. 12 2008 08:56 AM
Bad

Hate to disagree with Robert Krulwich, but he's wrong about evolution as he states it in this show. There never was a "half-chimp/half-human." Evolution is descent with modification: i.e. subgroups within groups. Modern chimps are of course our cousins, not our ancestors, but the point is deeper than that.

If we substitute "ape" for "chimp" we might get a clearer picture of the problem. Consider a "half-ape/half-human." Something is fishy with that too. And what's fishy is that, as we know, humans are apes: everything that makes apes distinct from other primates is found in humans. So talking about a "half-ape/half-human" is really more like saying that something is a "half-bird/half-chicken" or a "half-mammal/half-dog."

The reason all of this is so confusing is that the basic system of taxonomy, which was set up prior to evolution, is static and primarily built to classify existing, modern species. But the history of life is much bigger than just the present day, and the classifications have a branching unity that simple static names cannot capture.

But consider for a second a human being. We are not only still apes, 100% ape, but we are also "still" 100% primate. And 100% mammal. And 100% amniote. And 100% tetrapod. And 100% eukaryote! This can sound crazy to anyone who thinks of evolution as one thing changing into another, but the key is that all of these categories are not simply larger and larger categories: they are our history as well.

This is why, when creationists insist that we never see fruit flies or dogs becoming something "else" they don't know how right they are. All the descendants of fruit flies will be fruit flies. All the descendants of dogs will be dogs. Not because they won't change into new species as well, but because they will still group together under those terms against all other living things. The unique history that was the lineage of fruit flies will ALWAYS be their lineage. "Fruit fly" will still describe what they are, how they are all like each other and unlike anything else.

Hopefully this is all making sense: it's a weird concept for some people to grasp. Our taxonomic way of naming things is like only being able to see 2d in a 3d world.

Consider: even long extinct creatures like dinosaurs are given species names. But in a way, this is like saying that dinosaurs, and everything else we name in this manner, all exists in one time period, an nothing is the descendant of anything else. In reality, there is a "species" of now extinct dinosaur that is the ancestor of all birds. That's an entire CLASS (made up of many species of many genuses or many families, of many orders) of animals all tucked away beneath and inside that single "species" of dinosaur that is the ancestor of all of them.

Apr. 11 2008 10:20 PM
Jim B

I always pictured the annoucer voice in the beginning as done like that scene from the first Matrix movie where Neo gets sucked into the mirror, it's kind of surreal and I always liked it.

Apr. 11 2008 11:05 AM
Bryce

Am I the only one who wants to know where the Bioengineers song comes from? Was it written and recorded especially for the show?

Apr. 11 2008 08:46 AM
Tim Atkinson

After listening to this episode, I happened to come across some information on Portugese Man O' Wars, which are a type of siphonophore. They are a group of organisms (if I'm not mistaken) that live together and perform different functions in what seems to be an ultra symbiotic relationship. I thought it would be an interesting addition to the topic of evolutionary progress/ competition that was brushed upon in this episode.

Apr. 10 2008 04:18 PM
trevor

In response to Jess who hates the "douuuuble yooou ennnn why (WHY!!!???) seeeeeeeeeeeeee…" bit during the intro...

I love that bit! It is an exact copy of the sounds I sometimes hear in my head. Sometimes if I am concentrating hard I will repeat a phrase to myself, to the point that it sounds like garbled, slowed-down sounds that are pained and confused, but also vital.
Hearing that intro is always the first of the many delights I experience in hearing Radiolab.

Apr. 10 2008 03:54 PM
Timbray

I've been a fan of the show but this time I stopped right in the middle. I found that I could not finish listening the show it was to painful. It bothers me when humans start to play God, because we are capable of destroying nature e.g. global warming etc. The world we live in is not perfect but it works, if we don't abuse it we can live reasonably happy so why bother messing with it. I'm not a luddite but this is definitely taking science to an extreme and it can only mean unpleasant results.

Apr. 10 2008 03:05 PM
Bryce

This is my all time favorite radio show and I love it. But I was wondering if you could post the names of the songs you use on the show after the brake.

Apr. 10 2008 03:03 PM
Lisa

I am curious about a quick reference made to cows which would produce "human blood." Is this blood that would be taken directly from cows to be used by humans or is this regular cow blood manipulated to produce a "blood product" that could be used by humans? My husband works for a company that is making a "blood product" which can be used by humans, from cows blood. Genetically the cow hasn't been manipulated at all. It's in the processing of the blood that biochemistry comes into play.
I love the show.

Apr. 10 2008 10:09 AM
RadioLab

You want geep photos? Check out Lee Silver's online essay about animal chimeras. It's got a great one. http://www.scientificblogging.com/lee_silver/human_animal_chimeras_from_mythology_to_biotechnology

Otherwise, google "geep." The images are plentiful.

Apr. 10 2008 09:13 AM
Ben

Truly a fantastic episode, one of the best and most intriguing you've ever done. This should be submitted to SPJ's Sigma Delta Chi Awards.

Apr. 10 2008 09:05 AM
christian

or geep. um......whoops....

Apr. 10 2008 01:07 AM
christian

WE WANT GEET PHOTOS!

Apr. 10 2008 01:07 AM
Dallis Brockway

This is an awesome podcast. I love it(obviously. If I didn't I wouldn't be here). There is nothing wrong with these podcasts. They are pretty much the highlight of my month(apparently I have an uneventful life).

Apr. 09 2008 11:58 PM
Cindy Henley

My thoughts on this show... The piece about the twin lady was amazing. My husband listened to it with amazement with me. It brings up many questions about nature vs. nurture. Although, I was thinking, "How do we know that the part that is in the blood and the part in the uterus and the part in the brain (the emotional part)?" it would be interesting to know which parts belonged to which twin. Especially it would be interesting if the part that genetically birthed the kids and the part that emotionally raised the kids were two separate people it might tell us something about how much the kids genetically inherited vs. the upbringing of the mom. It seems that the two siblings living in the body of the mom would be closely related genetically as any siblings are.

Some of the other stuff from the show is really quite terrifying. All that mixing of species is scary and I agree with Robert about the reasons why. I find myself agreeing with Robert quite a bit which is a little scary to me... LOL.

I kept thinking that it reminded me of some weird X-Files episode but in real life. How can we possibly regulate it and keep the world safe from the genetic engineering that could potentially create all kinds of problems, some of which could not be imagined in the most brilliant minds?

Apr. 09 2008 10:38 PM
Brett Williams

Good news first: Unbeleviably great show as per usual, y'all have catapulted to the top of my entertainment list. Bad news: I agree with Jess about the sound morphing, it really gets on the nerves. And to boot, the whole 'voice mail' recreation sound effect for your credits makes them nearly untintelligible. You can't possibly want us not to hear the names of everyone who works on the show, or at least to strain to hear them. A little less voice morphing effects, the material is cool enough. Even worse, the only person to like the effect is a stoner (Houston, posted 4/8), that should say something even more.

Apr. 09 2008 05:57 PM
Elaine

I got to geek it up with my fellow biology lab-mates at tea time, talking chimeras and all the biotech you guys brought up on this show. Yea Radiolab!

Apr. 09 2008 03:52 PM
Sean

Another great episode from radio lab! Thank you all so much, always a perfect selection of music combined with awesome content. And yes keep the stretched out voice...

Apr. 09 2008 07:40 AM
Mike

P.S. Bring the show to Chicago sometime please.

Apr. 08 2008 10:56 PM
Mike

I have followed Krulwich since Nova Science Now! More Radiolab Episodes!

Apr. 08 2008 10:55 PM
Henry

about time this got posted I missed it when it aired.... A MONTH AGO!

Apr. 08 2008 07:25 PM

I really hope someone somewhere is working on creating an organism that can break down plastics. The plastics we create have an effectively limitless life. Every piece of plastic or styrofoam made since its invention that hasn't been burned still exists in our environment. All those toys you had as a kid, every bottle from every soda or water you drank, every polyester shirt, every button, everything—it's all still out there. And we're making trillions of tons of the stuff each year.

Apr. 08 2008 07:20 PM
Houston

@#1 -- I LOVE the guy with the stretched out voice ... I picture him stoned out of his mind.

Radiolab: This show was AWESOME (yes, Krulwich, AWESOME).

Apr. 08 2008 05:20 PM
Melisande

I almost said "No!" out loud when Jad says "well that's about all the time we have..."
I wish I was rich so I could maybe bribe another hour per episode out of you....

This episode was fantastic. and Fantastic!

thank you.

Apr. 08 2008 04:56 PM
Cameron Brigham

Congratulations on another captivating episode! I couldn't help but ponder what Will Wright, maker of the Sims games and the upcoming Spore, could do to explore some of the ideas presented in (So-Called) Life.

Apr. 08 2008 02:01 PM
Jeff Wu

A most thought-provoking epsiode---it is fascinating to know what can be done. Thank you Robert Krulwich for finally being able to eloquently express your concerns about the unintended consequences of bioengineering by the end of the show.

Apr. 08 2008 01:38 PM
Charles Lukoba

I never saw life the way this podcast is describing it's amazing.

Apr. 08 2008 12:40 PM
Pelle

I've never been listening to radio from the US. But this is really good. The way it's cut together is really cool! I have never heard a Swedish radio show like this (yes I'm from Sweden).

Apr. 08 2008 11:21 AM
Jess

I and at least a dozen friends of mine love the show. Thank you for all the hard work that goes into it. One teeny request: that bit during the intro, "You're listening to Radio Lab, the Podcast, from New York Public Radio..." spoken by all different voices? That's cool. BUT. That part when the guy saying WNYC gets stretched to sound like, "douuuuble yooou ennnn why (WHY!!!???) seeeeeeeeeeeeee...." is the only part that's ever sucked. We gotta pop our our earbuds for that moment. Any plans to change the intro?

Apr. 08 2008 08:57 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.